Many scenes in the newly released The Day After Tomorrow call to mind this line from the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz. For all the seriousness with which it has been treated in some quarters, The Day After Tomorrow simply begs for the sort of spoofing a cameo by the Cowardly Lion would supply. Appearing on Letterman’s late-night show, the film’s star, Dennis Quaid, admitted that Tomorrow’s science might be “crap” but urged the audience to remember, “it’s a movie!” It is indeed: a film composed of bad science, bad politics, a bad plot, bad acting–in short, a really bad movie.
In an early scene, the American vice president scoffs at the dire warnings issued by the charismatic Quaid. The VP protests that the “economy is just as fragile as the environment.” Once the environmental disasters start piling up, a military leader chastises the VP, “You didn’t want to hear about the science when it could have made a difference.” The film is so fatuous that this, its political gotcha moment, is utterly undermined by the plot itself, which depicts massive climactic changes occurring in a matter of days, an event that shocks even scientists like Quaid. If the VP had been Al Gore, instead of a Cheney look-alike, and had Gore been given absolute power over international policy, even he could not have done anything to avert the disaster.
Much has been made of the similarities between the movie VP and Dick Cheney, a similarity the film’s director, Roland Emmerich, calls “a lucky coincidence.” Perhaps it is not such a coincidence that the science of the film is as shoddy as it is. A little-reported fact about the origin of Tomorrow is that Emmerich decided to make it after reading The Coming Global Superstorm, a book co-written by the nation’s most credulous conspiracy theorist, Art Bell. That tells you all you need to know about the alleged science of the film.
The politics is just as bad. It is infected by simpleminded Hollywood dualisms: scientists and homeless guys–good, Republican politicians–bad. It also assumes viewers are so dull witted that they won’t get the lessons unless they are spelled out in detail. Toward the end of the film, as the Northern Hemisphere becomes a giant ski lodge and Americans head south, the Mexican government decides to close its border. Not content to let the scene itself make the point, the filmmakers have a TV reporter comment, “And now in a dramatic reversal….”
Blockbuster disaster films have never been known for their attention to character development or their subtle plots, but The Day After Tomorrow is a new low in the genre. Some of the sub-plots–which include snow-bound New Yorkers searching for penicillin and being chased by wolves–resemble scenes from bad horror films. Others, such as Dennis Quaid’s record-setting trek from Philadelphia to New York City on foot in the middle of a blinding blizzard, strain credibility. Some scenes are just laughably pointless. Trapped in the New York Public Library and needing a fire to keep them warm, two characters engage in a book-burning debate that goes something like this: “Nietzsche must be saved because he’s the greatest writer of the 19th century.” “No, he goes because he was a chauvinist pig.”
Even the special effects are underwhelming. Tornadoes rip through L.A., pulverize the Hollywood sign, and tear up the landmark Capital Records building. Tidal waves engulf NYC. On the blockbuster scale, The Day After Tomorrow pales by comparison to Emmerich’s 1996 summer hit, Independence Day.
Desperate to don the mantel of a political radical, Emmerich said he was sure “no studio would ever develop a movie like this. It’s way too subversive.” Subversive is exactly what this film is not. Out of all this disaster and destruction, Hollywood manages to deliver its standard, superficial happy ending. The film is not ultimately a tragedy but rather a purging of vice. An astronaut, stranded in space for the duration of the storm, comments at the end, “the air is so pure.” The film celebrates American ingenuity and the American ability, if belatedly, to see problems and strive to solve them.
With its weird science, a plot that makes it impossible for humans adequately to anticipate or fend off the destructive forces of nature, and its happy affirmation of American effort and ingenuity, this utterly forgettable film offers nothing to help Americans understand the debate over global warming or how they might ward off such an event were it in the cards. The Day After Tomorrow is a disaster film in more than one sense.